SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Due to the pandemic, some lawmakers barely stepped foot in the Capitol this session, opting to attend virtually instead. However, despite not traveling to the Roundhouse, those legislators still collected money meant to cover travel expenses.
In accordance with the rules, many lawmakers attended this 60-day session virtually. Regardless, all legislators, whether they traveled to Santa Fe or not, got paid for travel expenses. “I think it’s important for the taxpayer to know that, frankly,” former Rep. Jim Dines said.
“We’ve never really faced this situation in our Constitution before,” Sen. Craig Brandt (R-Minority Whip) said.
New Mexico’s Constitution states that each member of the Legislature shall receive per diem for each day’s attendance during each session. It is money to help cover travel expenses, like meals and lodging, because normally legislators are required to travel to Santa Fe to attend.
However, the rules are different this time around as lawmakers take precautions against COVID-19. Senators only had to be in the Capitol during floor sessions while House rules meant most representatives didn’t have to set foot in the Roundhouse at all. “It is required in the Constitution to pay the legislators per diem. It is not required that the legislator accepts it,” Sen. Brandt said.
He told KRQE News 13 that he has been in Santa Fe every day of the session. He said lawmakers who have not, should have refused the money. “It’s a huge cost to the taxpayers that they’re literally sitting at home and not being up here and still getting paid to be here,” Sen. Brandt said.
The Internal Revenue Service per diem rate for Santa Fe means each lawmaker accepted roughly more than $10,000 for the 60-day session. It amounts to a total of nearly $1.2 million.
However, former Rep. Dines said it is not a level playing field. “Let’s say a legislator from the House attending in Santa Fe may have a hotel bill of $100 a day and the person staying at home, needless to say, does not have that same hotel bill but is receiving the same amount of money.”
It is tough to say how many lawmakers skipped the trip to Santa Fe this year because there was no system in place to track it. When KRQE News 13 reached out to legislators to ask, Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) was very forthcoming about her decision during the pandemic. “For myself, I chose to stay. I’ve been in Las Cruces the entire time,” she said. “I have older parents who were at high risk, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the petri dish that is the Roundhouse.”
She added that other legislators could have chosen to do the same. However, does that mean that legislators who chose not to travel to the Capitol should still accept a per diem that was intended to cover travel expenses? We asked Rep. Rubio if lawmakers like herself should have opted out of receiving the money.
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied. “While it’s not specifically supposed to address a salary, there’s quite a few of us who serve in the Legislature that this is the only income that we actually have coming in, and that’s just the reality for a lot of us.”
New Mexico is the only state in the country that does not pay legislators a salary. “We are currently operating in a 1912 institution, trying to address 21st-century issues,” Rep. Rubio said.
It is a sentiment former Sen. John Arthur Smith agrees with after he too experienced the challenges firsthand. Per diem is only offered during the legislative session. So, he said, representing four different southern New Mexico counties involved lots of traveling on his own dime. “Are they asking that legislative member to subsidize state government?” he told KRQE News 13.
However, proposals to give legislators a salary have failed over and over again in the Roundhouse. And the one thing everyone KRQE spoke with agreed on is that per diem is not meant as a salary.
Rep. Rubio sponsored a proposal for Legislature pay this session. It passed the House and the first Senate committee, but it is not likely to make it to the Senate floor before the session ends at noon on Saturday.